Tongariro National Park: an introduction
Over the course of the past years, we’ve been asked quite some times by New Zealand bound travelers what our favorite national park here is. It’s a hard choice because out of the ten we have been to (there are fourteen in total) we have a special connection to all of them. However, if we would have to choose, we would pick Tongariro National Park. Why? Because it’s so different compared to the rest of New Zealand. It’s beautiful yet scary and completely different than the rest of the country. Join us on a virtual journey to one of the most amazing landscapes you will ever encounter!
Established in 1887, Tongariro National Park was New Zealand’s first National Park. It’s also one of the world’s 28 mixed cultural and natural Unesco Heritage Sites because of its outstanding natural features and cultural association with the Maori. You will definitely understand this when you are visiting.
Tongariro National Park (Tongariro means something as “being born in the bitter south wind”) is located in the center of the Northern Island. When you come driving from the north, which will be the case for most travelers, you have already passed plenty of green Hobbit-like hills. Then all of a sudden, Tongariro National Park will access your horizon far in the distance. The dark, snowcapped volcanoes will give you a great first impression of its grandeur that awaits you upon arrival.
Tongariro National Park was actually used as inspiration for the Lord of the Rings movies, where Mount Ngauruhoe featured as Mount Doom and several scenes were shot in the Rangipo Desert, which is part of the park. Three volcanoes dominate the park: Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro, which are pictured from right to left on the picture below. Especially from up close, they looks dangerous and they are! In 2012 Mount Tongariro erupted and caused the area to close for a while. Currently (May 2016) it also looks like Mount Ruapehu is showing an increased activity, so the area is under surveillance as we speak.
Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The first time we were in New Zealand, back in 2002, we didn’t visit Tongariro National Park. We weren’t much into hiking yet, otherwise we would never have skipped this as it’s a true hikers paradise. New Zealand’s most famous day hike is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and although you will not be the only one on this famous tramp, it’s very much worth it. Trust us! Once you’ve decided to do this hike, make sure you realize that it’s an alpine hike, meaning you will need to have at least some hiking experience. What’s really important to remember, is that the crossing is subject to weather. Many days each year Department of Conservation will advice not to set off because of the poor weather conditions. Those weather conditions may not always look bad from far away, but as we experienced ourselves, even on a sunny day the winds can be killing. So therefore, always check with DOC before setting off, their office is at the Whakapapa Visitor Center, the park’s main place for resources. While we were there we found out that many people had been waiting for days already to get out. Quite some had to leave disappointed as their itinerary forced them to move on. If you are determined to do this hike, plan a couple of extra days in and/or around Tongariro National Park, leaving some space for poor weather conditions.
When the weather is good enough, make sure you wear appropriate gear. We’ve seen a bunch of backpackers going up in flip flops and shorts, which is NOT appropriate hiking gear. Snowfields are common until late in the season and you wouldn’t be the first one who needs to be rescued from the mountains because you came unprepared without appropriate gear (such as, but not limited to, water- and wind proof jacket and trousers, warm clothes, gloves, hat, sturdy and waterproof hiking boots, first aid gear, at least 2.0 litres of water and food for the day). Just imagine the bill you will receive when a helicopter needs to come and pick you up. We hiked here in November and there was a ton of snow left and we even got a fresh bit one morning, so definitely do not underestimate the weather in Tongariro National Park.
Although we didn’t do the entire Alpine Crossing (we did it for 75% as a part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit) we can say it’s stunning. The natural features are amongst the best we have seen and the variety is amazing. Just imagine rocks in all kinds of red and orange colors, alpine lakes that are emerald, blue and green and of course the volcanoes that will give you a feeling of being in a dead land. Tongariro National Park definitely did not leave us disappointed…
Other things to know about Tongariro National Park
If you are not planning on doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, there are plenty of other short walks around the park that will give you a great feeling of its unique natural features. You can see waterfalls, explosion craters and of course the volcanoes. Martijn also planned to do go mountainbiking on the 42nd Traverse but because of the poor weather on our day off, he did a part of the Fishers Track instead.
If Tongariro National Park is in your trip itinerary, the best way to get there is by car. You may also travel by bus but this is way more inconvenient as you are best off driving for getting around. Whakapapa is the main village but we didn’t find it very attracting. Instead, we stayed in National Park Village, at the National Park Backpackers. There were no real facilities here but the views from the campsite are just stunning. When the skies cleared, we had perfect views of all three volcanoes in the distance. When you have finished hiking, make sure you will go and have dinner at The Station, where we had some of the best food of our whole six week trip. Groceries and gas are best bought in Turangi, about 50 kilometers away from Whakapapa. Otherwise you will have to shop at the gas station, which turns out to be rather expensive.
And when you are finally ready to leave this dark yet inspiring land behind and you are traveling further south, make sure you will drive the Desert Road. It’s an unforgiving and lonely ride that will make you feel like you are actually in Mordor, a place where nothing lives and a lot is dark, just like in the movies.
So – tell us, would you go here while in New Zealand? Or rather move on to the beaches and glaciers of the Southern Island?
Inspired to read more? Check out these posts as well:
– Hiking the Tongariro Nothern Circuit
– The ultimate itinerary to New Zealand for outdoor fans
– The best hikes in New Zealand
– All you want to know about hiking in New Zealand
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[Please note that this post was originally published in Feb. 2014 and was updated in May 2016]
Thanks for sharing!